Finding Honor at Honors

It’s a small world – even in the big city.

Many of my friends, acquaintances and even some enemies have probably heard me tell the story of how I, many years ago when I was a younger man, single-handedly quashed the hopes of Bulgaria to stage the Winter Olympics.

At the time I was working for the late Mario Vazquez Rana, President of the Mexican Olympic Committee as an interpreter. When the President of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee came to ask for his vote in a private meeting at an IOC congress, he brought along a cute young dark-haired interpreter who translated what he said in Bulgarian into French. As a Dutchman whose first language is now English, I then translated what I heard into Spanish for my boss.

At the end of something my boss said that I had translated into French, I lowered my voice and added, in a different tone to indicate that this was just for her – not to be translated into Bulgarian: “I think you’re very pretty – what are you doing later tonight?”

I don’t think she did it on purpose but from the expression on the face of the Bulgarian Olympic President, I knew immediately she had translated the whole thing as if it had come from my boss. He may have been willing to do a lot for his country’s Olympic bid, but there are limits – and he stormed out with his female interpreter in tow. I never got my date and Bulgaria never got the Olympics – it was eliminated by one in an early round of balloting.

What does all of this have to do with bridge? Well, this past weekend (12-11-2015), my partner Christine and I played bridge at the Honors Club in the Big Apple during a weekend New York trip. That visit, incidentally, completed a rare triple play for duplicate bridge players. In the last three months we have now played at the three top-ranked bridge clubs in the country: Honors is No. 1, the In-Between Club in Sarasota where we played a recent Sectional is No. 2 and Jourdan’s in Delray Beach (just south of the Palm Beaches), where we sometimes play on weekends, is No. 3. By the way, we got points at each of them.

Again, back to Bulgaria. At the end of the game at Honors, I chatted a bit with the director, who had a strong Eastern European accent. I asked him where he was from, and when he said he was from Bulgaria, I could not help regaling him with my story about the President of the Bulgarian Olympic committee.

You can imagine my surprise when he said: “Yes, that was my uncle, Ivan Slavkov.”

When I picked my jaw up off the floor – obviously I never expected that story to come back to haunt me in that way – I immediately apologized, both to his native country and to the memory of his late uncle, who apparently had passed away a few years ago.

The bridge director waved away my apologies and said he had enjoyed my story anyway. His uncle had been a bit of a womanizer (as well as an imbiber) himself and he probably would have admired my brazen attempt to pick up the girl – and he would also have been very offended at any suggestion impeaching his manhood, so the story fit very well with the memory he had of his uncle (who before his death had to step down from his Olympic post anyway in another sports bribery investigation.)


To be No. 1 in the country in number of tables played, Honors has to be a pretty special bridge club and it is. It’s easily accessible on the 14th floor of a midtown office building just across the street from a Lexington Avenue subway station and offers games mornings, afternoons and evenings.

Medals of regular Honors players won at Bermuda Bowls or World Bridge Federation championships are proudly displayed on the wall and the club runs its own book store.

Card fees are $30 per person for afternoon games but discounted to $22 in the evening when we played. But that’s not bad when you consider you get a full meal with your entry. And it’s not just a piece of rubber chicken or some cheap pasta dish – it was a delicious full dinner with beef brisket and several other meats, a salad bar, soft ice cream for dessert, as well as a free soda machine, coffee and snacks all evening long. You can’t have that kind of dinner for $22 in any decent New York restaurant, so you basically get a great but inexpensive dinner and play for free.

Honors has also successfully experimented with different formats of games to stimulate more interest. One format we found interesting was a Pro-am-am-am format in which one pro plays on a four-person Swiss team with three Non-Life Masters, a different one in each round. Between the three amateurs, they take care of the team entry and the pro plays for free as captain.

Honors is also doing its bit to attract young people, a universal challenger for the seriously “graying” game of bridge. Since most young people work during the daytime, they offer evening classes followed by abbreviated games for people under 30, and afterward, they can go out for a drink if they like. It’s a great way to get people to enjoy the social aspects of the game.

We found the Honors crowd to be pretty eclectic, even for New York City. There was an eccentric pro with a bad haircut – he modestly said he played as a professional only on days of the week ending in “y” – and Jesus, a native of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic who said he switched to bridge when his coaches in his hometown realized he’d never make it in the Major Leagues as a shortstop – like all the other boys in the town – because he didn’t move quickly enough to his left or his right.

Then we played against a couple of Korean immigrants with stoic, serious faces, and a couple billed as the national bridge champions of Guatemala, plus the usual collection of people in walkers and ditzy old ladies. But of course the quality of bridge was pretty high throughout the field.

Christine and I did well. We had been in first place all evening until in the last round we came up against the pro – I guess he was playing as a professional because it was Frida-y – and we fell back into second place just a sliver of a point out of first with a 56% game that was worth .70 MasterPoints (first place only got one full point in a “smallish” evening game).

We had five absolute tops in the 24 boards we played and several other ties for tops. One board we were particularly proud of (worth a Bridge Burglar blog entry), was a great sacrifice Christine made in 4 Diamonds, going Down One vulnerable but not doubled for a minus-100 score. Our opponents had a Game in either major, but they never found it because of our aggressive interference bidding.

East Dealer; both sides vulnerable

7 4
K 9 6
A K 10 8
A 5 4 3
West East
K Q J 8 3 A 9 4
A 4 3 Q 10 8 5 2
  4 9 7
K J 6 2 Q 8 7
10 6 2
J 7
Q J 6 5 3 2
10 9

The bidding:

East South West North
Pass 2 2 4
All Pass

Opening lead: King of Spades

Flustered Flo hates playing against her nemesis, Smug Sam, because he always seems to find a way to take the bid away from her – and not pay the price.

So when Flo came to the table where Sam sat North and picked up the very decent West hand, she already felt that sense of foreboding – how was he going to rob her of a decent contract this time?

Sure enough, after her own East partner, Loyal Larry, had passed, Sam’s South partner, Shy Shem, opened pre-emptively with a weak 2 Diamonds bid. Of course Flo was going to bid, but she had a decision to make: Double or bid 2 Spades? She finally decided to bid her solid Spade suit – if she doubled and made her partner bid, she still wouldn’t have any idea about the relative strength of his hand.

She turned her eyes to her left to see what Sam was going to do – hopefully, he’d just pass and let her and Larry get on with the auction in a somewhat orderly fashion.

With Sam? No chance! He pulled out the Stop! card and followed it up with a 4 Diamonds bid. With everyone vulnerable, Larry had no stomach for bidding, so the contract stayed in 4 Diamonds to be played by Shem.

Flo took the first two Spade tricks and Shem ruffed the third high in the dummy. He drew two rounds of trump ending up in his hand and led a low Heart. Flo took the Ace and continued with another Heart to dummy’s King. Shem took the Ace of Clubs, gave up a Club but claimed the rest of the tricks with trumps and cross-ruffs. He was Down One to give Flo and Larry a score of plus-100.

“At least we got a positive score, partner,” Flo said to Larry. “It was hard for us to find our fit with them having all the Diamonds in the world.”

“Pardon me for disagreeing, Flo,” said Sam, although no one had asked him his opinion, “but I think it was rather easy for you to find a fit. As a matter of fact, you guys can have a Game in either major. Both 4 Spades and 4 Hearts make – without breaking a sweat.”

“But how do we get there with all that crazy Diamond bidding by you guys?” Flo asked.

“Your 2 Spades overcall was rather weak,” said Sam, smug as always. “You’re strong enough to switch suits if he says something you don’t like.”

“So it’s all my fault, as usual?” Flo asked.

“Well, your partner certainly might have supported your Spades or mentioned his Hearts to get to either Game,” explained Sam, “but if you’d doubled he would have had more courage to do it.”

“Come to think of it,” said Flo, “your bidding was rather strange, wasn’t it? Shem opened weak with only 4 points – doesn’t he need at least 5 for that? Weren’t both of you over-bidding your hands on fumes?”

“Shem may be shy, but a 6-card suit always make him lose his shyness just a little.”

“And what about you?” Flo insisted. “If you have a strong hand opposite a partner’s weak 2 bid, shouldn’t you bid 2 No-Trump to ask for a side feature or to start the Ogust convention? I’ve never heard of this jump to 4 in a minor.”

“Two No-Trump is fine if you guys aren’t bidding. But after your 2 Spades overcall, if I bid 2 No-Trump, you guys still have a better chance to get in at the 3 level. Your being in the auction changed everything,” said Sam. “Now my 4 Diamonds bid had a much better chance of keeping you out.”

“I guess it worked,” said Flo, rather despondently.

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